E Wine of the Week
By Bruce Cochran
Last week we had a brief discussion of a wine region. This week we’ll take a broader view of the world’s greatest grape variety, where it’s grown and where to find the best examples and the biggest bargains.
Try a new wine this week!
If put to a vote, cabernet sauvignon would almost undoubtedly be picked as the world’s greatest wine grape variety. It’s described as having flavors reminiscent of blackcurrant and other dark fruits, often accented with oak and sometimes even the minerals in the vineyard.
Cabernet sauvignon is grown all over the world, and where it’s from goes a long way in determining its style and price. And styles and prices can vary a lot.
Cabernet prices can range from less than $5 to more than $500. I’m not sure quality varies quite that much-the most expensive ones carry a premium because they’re made in small quantities and are therefore in short supply. But as with any wines, especially these days, there are plenty of bargains out there. The hardest part for most people isn’t just finding a good one at a good price, but finding one in the style they like, or a style that goes with a certain dish.
Here’s the short, very general version of what styles come from which areas.
More elegant styles-elegant meaning lighter but still good-tend to come from cooler areas, where the grapes don’t get as ripe as they do in warmer climates. Cool climates include Bordeaux in southwestern France, the original home of cabernet sauvignon. Wine labels there don’t list the grape varieties, and most are blended. In the warmer areas, like the Medoc subregion, it’s mostly cabernet with a little merlot added to soften the wine. In cooler areas, notably St. Emilion, cabernet is used in smaller amounts to add body to merlot. Other grapes are sometimes added, mostly in small percentages. You might be surprised to know that you can buy $100 cab’s from Tuscany. Many Chianti’s have cabernet blended with the traditional sangiovese grapes.
In California (and Australia, parts of which have a similarly warm climate), grapes tend to get riper, and the wines have a fuller, richer style. They also tend to be higher in alcohol, which adds weight to the wine. Some people say this style doesn’t pair as well with food compared with a more elegant style, others say they prefer it. They’re certainly easier to find in the U.S.
Styles can vary a lot within California. If Napa Valley cab’s are the biggest, many Sonoma Valley cab’s tend to be a bit softer, and those from nearby Alexander Valley (northern Sonoma County), tend to be even more elegant and Bordeaux-like.
Something in the middle stylewise, and at good prices, is Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast. This fast-growing (excuse the pun) region is today a major source of fruit-centered cabernet sauvignons. There are many wineries from which to choose, and most are good.
If you’re looking for bargains, Chile has long been successful with cabernet sauvignon. The climate is similar to California’s Central Coast, with similar coastal valleys cooled by the same Pacific breezes. In recent years Chile has been making cabernet that ranks with the world’s best, but bargains are still available. Styles tend to combine California-like fruit with Frenchlike finesse. The cabernet sauvignon from California Karma will show you the pure fruit flavor of “Paso Cab’s.” It retails at a good price, between $10 and $15 a bottle.
Bruce Cochran has traveled to every major wine region on four continents. A 30-year veteran of the wine trade, he taught continuing education wine classes for 26 years at colleges throughout Arkansas.